FileMaker Pro 7, by FileMaker Inc
Posted: 6-Jul-2004

4 1/2 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: FileMaker Inc Type: COMMERCIAL

Reviewer: Miles Libbey Class: PRODUCTIVITY

Overview
FileMaker Pro is a database program able to store and provide easy retrieval of information without needing to learn the details of database specific languages. It is a relational database program able to store and find data based on logical queries (e.g., "and", "not", etc.) giving it more powerful search capabilities over using something like Excel. FileMaker Pro is targeted at the complete spectrum of users from the novice to the enterprise IT professional.

Although this review is for FileMaker Pro 7, other versions are tailored to larger or enterprise-level needs: Developer, Mobile (allows database extension to Palm and Pocket PCs), Server (designed for hundreds of simultaneous users) and Server Advanced (for sharing data with database language specific applications using ODBC and JDBC).

Requirements
FileMaker Pro runs on both Mac and Windows; it is a well-supported cross-platform application. The requirements for the Mac are as follows:

  • Apple G3 or higher (no G3 upgrade cards)
  • 128MB of RAM
  • CD-ROM drive and hard disk drive
  • Mac OS X v10.2.8 or later (FileMaker 6 is still available for those still using OS 9)

This review was conducted on a 17" G4 PowerBook running OS X 10.3.4.

Setup
Installation, like most modern OS X applications, was simple to the point of being trivial. Only one CD is required, and after installation, FileMaker is available for immediate use without any special configuration or preference settings.  On subsequent launches, FileMaker opens rapidly and ready for use.


In Use
My hope for FileMaker Pro 7 was to convert an old customer relations management database written (not well and just limping along) in MS Access. For reference, my last up close relational database dealings were with dBase IV writing a 20 page small business script/program with heavy SQL (language that speaks to the database and expresses your operations and outputs). However, that was over ten years ago. In short, I wish I had waited for FileMaker Pro 7 - most of my programming would have been replaced by point and click interfaces.

As I started the conversion process, I realized that there was no quick way by which to simply transport the MS Access program into FileMaker Pro 7, and so I realized that the database would not be ready for review any time soon. It was easy enough to export the data from Access into a particular file on a PC, and then import the data to FileMaker Pro on my Mac. Realigning and modifying the relatively large set of separate files takes a little hands-on experience to do well and was not a good way to start my learning of FileMaker Pro; hence, I changed paths and chose to keep it simple for the first time around in order to gain experience (more than the tutorial could provide).

NOTE: FileMaker did nothing to curb my distaste for tutorials; I am convinced if every CEO and Chairman were forced to go through the tutorial for their product, we might eventually get a rational experience. Yes, I learned enough, and no, FileMaker is not really worse than others out there, but its tutorials have plenty of room for improvement.

To get a running start, I decided to follow a more practical path. I worked with one of our kid's fourth grade teacher who had several different lists of students, class grades and contact information files in Excel. When FileMaker opens up, you can choose to open one of several preformed templates. No single template suited our needs, so we chose different examples for different imports, and easily imported the Excel files. Eventually the files were imported twice as the re-noviced database designer (yours truly) got smarter as time went on. Realization struck that I had boxed myself in the first time around, and so the second import was performed in a more efficient manner. This sort of experience is to be expected during the learning process, and is not the fault of FileMaker. After that experience, I do not think I would make that type of mistake again... errr, at least not anytime soon. Think of your early days learning PowerPoint. In the same way, FileMaker experience adds up quickly.

At first, we played around with the individual FileMaker databases and enjoyed the speed and ease that the polished user interface brought. During this initial phase, the database did little more than Excel could do from a computational sense. On the other hand, it was nice to be able to use the easy drop down layout menu in Browse mode to call up several sheets that quickly ordered the data in different but useful ways.

Combining contact information with grades was our first attempt at making several files searchable at once, and start to pull together the relational power that FileMaker brings over Excel. With all the data first transferred to FileMaker files, you use 'define database path', and point, drag, and click to designate which file from which to import data and what the relationship is.  If the source file has several tables, data can only be imported from one table at a time, so it may be necessary to repeat the import as many times as needed.  By simply dragging a line between boxes, FileMaker programs the relationship you define. Very simple and clean!

As you construct, use and improve your database, FileMaker provides several tools to maximize your database efficiency and streamline your development process. In addition to these tools, FileMaker Pro provides a set of different modes to work in: Browse, Find, Layout and Preview.

Browse is the workhorse of the modes, providing you with the much needed view of your data, either record by record, or several records at a time in columnar form. The view of the data is controlled by the current layout, and several layouts can be designed for a database. Switching layouts is easily done with a popup menu, and the view is instantly changed. Browse mode is also where you perform edits on the data, including adding new records and deleting records.

Find (Search) allows you to filter your large data set into those records that you are interested in at the moment. After the search and filtering is complete, you are put back into the workhorse Browse mode. For a teacher to be able to find all the kids who have scored above 90 and below 60 over the first four weeks of school and get the answer without delay seems like a miracle. FileMaker Pro allows and encourages all sorts of interesting questions to be explored.

Layouts are window designs to display your data in a variety of different ways. A layout can be as simple as the cellular form of an excel spreadsheet, or with rich graphics, buttons and fields that gather and combine several database elements for a fancy report. A layout can provide a view of a single data record, a list of several records using columns, or even a database summary. As an example, we had a basic list record layout that had names, addresses, parents contact info, and a miscellaneous field for interesting tidbits picked up over the years. We had another layout, a Summary Layout, that included just the top-level grade averages for each subject. Since the entire database was only for one teacher, we did not explore a lot of the design elements for layouts (such as colors, shapes and buttons), but it was nice to know that the tools were there if we needed them. To help novices get started, the sample layouts both in the tutorials and those that can be gleaned from the Web provide good starting points that can be easily modified by those who want to dabble both in databases and graphical arts. FileMaker gives you the options and power to make stunning layouts, but the real power is in the linking of records and manipulation of fields.

Preview is modeled after Print Preview and helps in catching formatting errors in more complicated layouts prior to sending the output to a printer.


FileMaker's powerful visual paradigm of programming was the highlight of our database construction experience. Instead of essentially writing code, the structure of the data is presented visually, and thus can be manipulated the same way, making 'programming' your databases an intuitive process. Under File-> Define-> Database, a powerful point and click, visually-oriented tool allows you to both define the elements of your database as well as the different files to be used to relate data fields.  For instance, a student name can be the key field for several files. You might have one database containing student information, and another containing grade history. If you wanted to create a grade history report that included student information, instead of creating duplicate fields in both databases, you would report from the grade history database, and access the student information from the other database using student name as the lookup value.  Likewise, if a new data field requirement comes up, it is very easy to modify an existing layout or tailor a new one (based upon one of several well-designed layout templates) to support the new requirement.

Upon completing the database conversion of the student database, we understood FileMaker much better, and were ready to start the next project with the confidence of being more efficient. Moreover, the results of this first conversion were convincing enough to motivate the teacher to get an educational discounted version of FileMaker Pro, and for me to be thankful that this was not a dBase IV review!

Summary
FileMaker Pro is a superb, best of class database product useful across all levels of user capability and cross-platform uses. Albeit, FileMaker comes at a hefty price tag, from $299 for the standard Pro version to $999 for the Server version. Ready-made templates allow quick start up to import existing files (Excel, text, and more) and convert them into a true relational databases. Although there is no ability to import MS Access with a single button push, the visual interface tool for mapping data to fields from multiple tables (files) simplifies the process. Like a high-end luxury car, this program has tons of power and features, many of which might not be needed by the average home user. Based on my previous experience of writing a database program, I estimate that FileMaker would have reduced my time by 40% to 50%. The savings in development time alone may easily justify the price. To gain a decent level of proficiency in FileMaker Pro, some time needs to be spent exploring the intricacies of the user interfaces. I recommend starting off with some simple uses, and then expanding from there. If you really need a powerful relational database, download a 30-day trial and determine if it is worth it to you. Overall, for handling databases with intuitive ease and great flexibility, FileMaker Pro is a great tool for all levels of use. I highly recommend it.

Pros

  • FileMaker Pro's overall visual nature is a competitive advantage and promotes ease of use
  • Templates make it useable immediately out-of-the-box for a wide variety of individual needs
  • Relationships between fields have new intuitive visual tools, simplifying complexity
  • Complete electronic documentation, with good resources on the web
  • Free 30-day trial download.

Cons

  • With MS Access as current de facto Windows standard, need an easy way to convert to FileMaker Pro quickly
  • Hefty initial dollar outlay, but with rational major upgrade pricing policy
  • Tutorials have room for improvement
  • Some of the more useful templates and training may seem expensive to the average home user


Overall Rating

4 1/2 out of 5 Mice